Design through Coursera - Week 2

This post is the second in a series about the Coursera course Design: Creation of Artifacts in Society. You can read about my overview of Week 1 of the course here.

In Week 1 the course covered the basics of design and an overview of the design process. Week 2 of the course took a look at better understanding and defining the problem as part of the design process. This is a key stage as it sets the context for the rest of the design process and you need to make sure you are addressing not only the right problem, but also a problem that you actually have the capabilities and resources to address.

The first approach outlined by Professor Ulrich in the video lectures to assist with defining the problem was the use of the '5 Whys'. This involves asking why five times to open up the problem. Once you have sensed a gap that exists between the desired user experience and what exists, you identify a problem statement and then ask 'why?' to broaden it out into a more general problem. By framing the question in terms of 'how might we' and repeatedly asking 'why' you can get a better sense of the motives behind the design problem and concentrate on what you are really trying to solve and check whether your focus is at the right level. You can also ask 'how' to concentrate the problem and bring it down to a more specific design problem that may be more manageable or tangible.

The Professor explained that broadening out the problem statement into a wider level of generality allows you to have more options to address the problem - Professor Ulrich said that ideally you will have a problem statement that is slightly more general than you, as the designer, are comfortable with, but not so general that you will not be able to make any headway against the problem. It will still be something that you can make a measurable impact on.

This is a surprisingly helpful step - it helps identify what you are really trying to achieve and can open up your perspective to other possibilities for dealing with the problem at hand than you might have thought about.

Another stage of the process outlined in the video lectures was about identifying user needs - Professor Ulrich noted that for any product or artifact there will be at least 30 distinct user needs (and up to 400!). The user needs might include contradictory things, they may be of different levels of priority and they can usually be grouped under some primary needs. They can also be divided into four categories:

  1. needs that the user doesn't actually care about - whether the needs are met or not will not actually affect the user's satisfaction

  2. linear needs - where an improvement against the need will be met by a commensurate improvement in the user's satisfaction

  3. 'must haves' - where if the needs are met completely this will only meet what the user was expecting (and if the needs are not met, the user will be extremely dissatisfied)

  4. latent needs - needs that if you do not meet, the user will still be satisfied, but that if you do identify and address, the user will be delighted.


In discussing this with some of my colleagues, we wondered whether the public sector experience of design is different to the private sector in regards to latent needs. Public sector agencies are not usually rewarded for meeting latent needs (whereas a private sector organisation might expect to be, either in terms of profit or customer loyalty). Yet meeting latent needs may be more important for the public sector if it wants to achieve the policy outcomes it is seeking. I suspect this is something that we will explore further over time at the Centre.

The course material also went through how to identify those user needs - primarily through observational methods and interviews. The Professor quoted some interesting research ('The Voice of the Customer') which showed that one-on-one interviews were the most efficient method for identifying user needs, and that for any one segment of users 7 to 8 interviews will help you identify around 90% of user needs. As a rule of thumb Professor Ulrich recommended discussing the problem area and user needs with 10 distinct users in each distinct segment of users.

In using observational methods, Professor Ulrich noted that you are looking to identify needs or gaps in the user's experience. These can be seen through measures such as awkward actions, homemade solutions, visible frustration, inefficiencies and errors.

The Professor mentioned that it is easier to use observational methods when you are designing an artifact to address an existing problem for which there are existing solutions - when there are not any existing solutions, you are going to have to infer a lot more than you can from direct observation.

Once you have all of the raw data, the course gave guidance on how to code the information, including expressing the needs without implying a design concept, and then arranging the needs.

The assignments included identifying user needs around a problem/gap that we had identified in Week 1 of the course, and also learning to do 2D orthographic sketches (as sketching is an important part of the design process).

I really enjoyed the second week of the course, and learnt some interesting things about the design process. (The course reading from the accompanying text book Design: Creation of Artifacts in Society also discussed the relationship between design and innovation and the different types of problems and what constitutes a design problem. This happens to be of relevance to some other work we are doing around agreeing a common language around design for the broader Australian Public Service, and is a topic I hope to return to on the blog in the future.)

For any other public servants doing the course, what did you think of week 2?